Having been in football for many years as part of the supporting cast I have worked for a number of managers and backroom teams. At professional level at least, the latter now consists of assistant managers, coaches, a goalkeeper coach, physios, doctors and sport scientists, analysts and fitness coaches. As with a football team on the field, one member who doesn’t perform effectively can undermine the entire group. The backroom team members not only have specific tasks, but also play a part in creating the right atmosphere around the team.
Former Arsenal and England physio Fred Street described working for a football club in whatever capacity as not so much a job but rather a way of life. Your title or job description defines a very narrow view of your function and being a member of the staff team is probably more accurate, as it covers the multitude of small day to day problems that crop up when dealing with around forty people.
Which is what players being – people – with all the associated problems any large group of people produce. This is possibly added to with a group of footballers and their peculiar situation in a world of changing values, uncertainty and the daily assessment of their abilities.
Staff in whatever capacity or level at the club must be available at all times to listen, help if possible, advise, correct and guide, and keep their finger on the ‘pulse’ of players problems, real or imaginary. The title of utility man is probably more accurate. Arguably English football’s greatest manager Bob Paisley preferred the word staff rather than individual titles when referring to his backroom team.
At all levels, one of the most precarious aspects of the game is when a board loses faith with the main man – the manager. A question that always gets asked when a manager departs a club, no matter what football club what part of the country is ‘what about the backroom staff.’ It brings uncertainty for the supporting cast, the players and even the owners of the club or managers looking to take over.
When Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield in 1950 he opted to release two dozen players but retain all the backroom staff, a rarity in today’s game.
One Liverpool staff man, Ronnie Moran, became the perfect lieutenant and foil for not only Shankly, but Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans. He always feared the worst when a new manager was appointed.
This is why when a manager gets appointed the first act is usually to sack the backroom staff except the youth team manager and the physio, or certainly not immediately. The physio is normally safe at first because the manager needs fit players and nobody knows them better than the physio. Good physios are hard to find and tend to stay at clubs for a long time, whereas the rest of the staff often get culled like cubs by a new lion because they may not be loyal to the new gaffer and have lofty ambitions themselves.
The manager does this because he feels that he can trust his own team of staff who have been with him before and are ready instantly to put in to practice what he wants. When he finally gets sacked, the backroom staff usually go the same way and just accept it until they get another chance.
Over the years, many high profile and good club men have been shown the door or been marginalised into a lesser role following the appointment of a new manager. Nowadays culls don’t just stop at coaching staff, it more often than not affects doctors and physios – in the last three years half of the Premier League clubs have either changed doctor or physio following the appointment of a new manager.
When Neil Warnock was appointed the Plymouth Argyle Manager in the close season of 1995, he immediately made a couple of player signings. His next import was not a player but Norman Medhurst the Torquay United physiotherapist who struck up a friendship with Warnock when the manager had a brief spell as a consultant to the south-west club. Warnock said at the time: “I’m delighted to get someone of his calibre. You want your own men. I was always impressed with Norman during my time at Torquay. I have explained to Paul (the outgoing physio) – that’s football I’m afraid. “
Former Arsenal and England man Street described the physio who has been a more than able lieutenant for a number of managers a bit like a civil servant who carries on regardless of who is charge, whether the minister or in our case the managers change. After the appointment of Nuno Esperanto Santos at Wolves, fitness coach Tony Daley was quoted as saying surviving five managers is an achievement in itself.
There are many more worthy examples of these men, like Gary Lewin who succeeded Fred Street with Arsenal and who also served England. He tells the story of how he feared Arsene Wenger was going bring all his own staff in. In the end, the Frenchman did bring Boro Primarac in but kept all the original staff on. Lewin said: “His words to us were ‘You are good at what you do otherwise you wouldn’t be here. All I want you to do is listen to how I work and what I want and we will evolve together.‘”
There is certainly an argument that there is no point in suddenly changing routines that players are comfortable with – it can be counterproductive, sap morale and may immediately provoke players to question the new man’s motives. A leader who arrives at in a big club setting or inherits a big club role, needs to curb his impulse to display his manhood. Often backroom staff tend to get a feel for what going to happen regarding your position long before you get to find out.
Former Everton manager Sam Allardyce sums this up perfectly. He said: “I knew I was leaving two months before I left. I am too old and wise not to know what was going on behind the scenes. If they thought they could keep it quiet they don’t know how many people I know. They should have just said ‘Look Sam, fantastic job but we are going to move in another direction next season. Just come out and say it. I can take it I am big man’”